Vatican Told Irish Bishops Not To Report Abuse

Every now and then, a new set of documents trickle out of the Vatican about the decades long sexual abuse scandals, and this one is pretty deplorable:

DUBLIN (AP) — A newly revealed 1997 letter from the Vatican warned Ireland’s Catholic bishops not to report all suspected child-abuse cases to police — a disclosure with the potential to fuel more lawsuits worldwide against the Vatican, which has long denied any involvement in cover-ups.

The letter, obtained by Irish broadcasters RTE and provided to The Associated Press, documents the Vatican’s rejection of an Irish church initiative to begin helping police identify pedophile priests.

The letter’s message undermines persistent Vatican claims that the church never instructed bishops to withhold evidence or suspicion of crimes from police. It instead emphasizes the church’s right to handle all child-abuse allegations, and determine punishments, in house rather than hand that power to civil authorities.


Child-abuse activists in Ireland said the 1997 letter should demonstrate, once and for all, that the protection of pedophile priests from criminal investigation was not only sanctioned by Vatican leaders but ordered by them. A key argument employed by the Vatican in defending dozens of lawsuits over clerical sex abuse in the United States is that it had no role in ordering local church authorities to suppress evidence of crimes.

“The letter is of huge international significance, because it shows that the Vatican’s intention is to prevent reporting of abuse to criminal authorities. And if that instruction applied here, it applied everywhere,” said Colm O’Gorman, director of the Irish chapter of human rights watchdog Amnesty International

There’s really no reason to think that isn’t the case and that the Vatican was as complicit in covering up the sexual abuse of children in the United States as it was in Ireland. Unfortunately, because of the Vatican’s (slightly absurd) status as a state, it will never pay the price it ought to in American courts.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. legion says:

    Wow. I know you’re pessimistic about the Church ever paying the price for this crap, but you’re a “law-talkin’ guy” – surely a smoking gun like this puts us pretty much at the threshold for a RICO prosecution, doesn’t it?

  2. I want to know what the chain of command was in issuing this Vatican ukase.

  3. An Interested Party says:

    Amazing…a nun gets excommunicated for allowing an abortion to save the life of the mother, meanwhile, numerous priests sexually molest children and are actually protected by the Church…the Catholic Church doesn’t need to look at secular culture as a threat…it is doing a fine job of damaging itself all on its own…

  4. PD Shaw says:

    The clergy have recognized legal confidentiality obligations to confessors, which can be overcome by affirmative reporting obligations in some jurisdictions. Not necessarily a simple issue.

  5. michael reynolds says:


    That’s presupposing we’re talking about the confessional. Isn’t it likely that reports to the police could have focused on eyewitness testimony or statements made outside of confession?

    Maybe the Vatican should rethink their nation-state status, because if this was Libya or Cuba they’d be looking at the wrong end of a cruise missile.

  6. Legion,

    Under U.S. law the Vatican a/k/a The Holy See is a sovereign nation and thus immune from most civil suits.